Men In Black 3 – Review

Men In Black III (AKA: MIB3) (2012) 

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Starring Will SmithTommy Lee JonesJosh BrolinJemaine ClementEmma Thompson.

10 years after the disappointing Man in Black 2, and 15 years after the first original one (which, needless to say,was the best by a very long stretch), raise your hands if you really felt the need for yet another sequel… Anyone? … Please, anyone? ANYONE?!

These days Hollywood’s willingness for getting new ideas out there, or at least ones which are not based on comics, or at least are not sequels or remakes, is becoming increasingly rare! But then again, this a whole other subject which I’ve tackled again and again (you can check my post about it here) and I bore even myself talking about it. So granted that nobody really wanted this film, I am happy to be on record saying that MIB3 is actually rather watchable (yet fairly forgettable).

The film starts off looking pretty tired as if trying to resuscitate from that previously dead sequel. It is permeated by a sense of Déjà vu and only relies on that already-proven chemistry between the two original leads and especially Will Smith whose charm and likeability doesn’t seem to have faded in the last 13 years (in fact he looks exactly the same: God, what’s his secret?!). Even his co-star Tommy Lee Jones once said in an interview “All I need to do to be funny is stand as close as possible to Will”. So true.

The film finally gets into the right gear and stops limping once we travel back in the 60s. The reason for the time travel is very reminiscent of the plot from the underrated Back to the Future – part 2: Will Smith has to travel back in time to prevent the baddie from the future to meet his own self from the past and thus change erm… the future. It all sounds very complicated but, unlike the mind-screwing BTTF2, this is all pretty straight forward (and it fact with plot holes all over the places) and at the end of the day it’s just a device so that we they can probably avoid paying Tommy Lee Jones a full-fee, but also it allows Josh Brolin to have the time of his life, acting as the young K (Tommy Lee Jones‘s character).And for once the sense of fun that the makers must have felt behind the scenes manages to transpire onto our screens too. The similarity between the two is indeed uncanny and amazingly the joke sustains itself for pretty much the entire length of the film. I’m sure in years to come, Josh Brolin aping Tommy Lee Jones will be the only thing people will remember from this otherwise forgettable MIB3.

Don’t take me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy here: some of the action set-pieces, Emma Thompson‘s (sadly too) brief appearance, the deliciously nasty, and rather gross turn by Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal, the villain of the piece, and the usual special effects extravaganza, which is now almost taken for granted in this types of movies. There is nothing really as cringe-inducing as in the previous sequel, but sadly most of that spark of fresh humour from the original seems have been replaced by an unexpected sentimentality, which is sweet enough and I suppose it’s probably befitting a Steven Spielberg production, but it’s not really what we want from a Man in Black film.

They got away with it this time, but they should really put this trilogy to bed and start something new.

6.0/10

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 30th anniversary Review

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 

Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Dee WallaceHenry ThomasPeter CoyoteRobert MacNaughtonDrew BarrymoreThomas C. Howell

(OUT ON BLURAY on the 12 NOVEMBER 2012)

(CONTAINS SPOILERS… (though, if you have not seen this film yet, you should really stop wasting time on this silly blog and go and watch it right now!)

As I am writing this, ET is 30 years old (You probably thought it would be more, judging by those wrinkles on his face…). Exactly 30 years ago (on the 26th of May 1982) ET: The Extra Terrestrial was being premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in front of audiences and critics. Little did anyone know that this tiny little film, with a relatively low budget and a cast of unknown was going to become the most successful film in history.It stayed on the top of the chart for 16 weeks in a row and remained among the top 10 films for an astonishing 44 weeks, grossing around $800 millions (and if you adjust it for inflation it well above both Titanic and Avatar).

ET-mania was about to start and take over the world. Never before (and since) an image from a film like the one with a bicycle flying over the moon has been more instantly recognisable (Marilyn’s skirt blowing in the wind might be  just as iconic, but not many people will be able to tell which movie it is from). It eventually became Spielberg’s trade-mark and the logo of his Amblin Entertainment. But before the myth, before the merchandising, and the hundreds of “phone home” spin off commercials, ET is simply a great story and the perfect family film, a rare breed which today seems to apply to Pixar films only. It is a masterfully crafted modern tale which has all those trademarks that today are recognised as Spielberg’s: broken family, kids on bikes, sweeping music, beautiful visual, big emotions, laughs and tears within minutes from each other, flares on a lens, and course great action. This is quintessential Spielberg!

We all know the central plot about an alien left alone on Earth and befriending a child. But it so much more than that. It is obviously a rite of passage, it’s about growing up, and responsibilities. It is a story about the divorce of two parents and a child left alone dealing with it. It’s about family and friends, and what it is we call home. This is Spielberg’s most accomplished film, maybe just because it is his most honest and personal: the director is talking from his own experience as a child of divorced parents, looking for his own voice among his siblings and searching for somebody to talk to and to help him growing up.

The film is sometimes accused (by sniffy narrow-minded people, mainly) of being too sentimental, but the sentimentality in ET comes from being truthful to the kids and to their emotions. It’s never cheap and it’s not as obvious as might think or remember. ET for example is not the classic cute teddy bear, in fact it’s quite the opposite: it’s gross, slimy, really quite disgusting if you think about… and yet the film manages to make us all fall in love with him.

Spielberg gives an honest and authentic depiction of children both in normal and extraordinary situations. This is a man who not only seems to understand children perfectly , but at his heart is a big child himself. And so, when Elliott sees the alien for the first time, after the first moment of terror, what does Spielberg makes him do? He makes him go to his own room to show him his toys. When the older brother Michael steals a car to run away from the police he realises he doesn’t really know the way because “mom always drives me there”.  

These are beautifully observed moments where the kids feel real, from the way they talk, play and generally behave. The film is like a time-capsule of kids in the 80s and yet it works on kids today just as well. These are no actors, these are how kids would really react if an alien came to stay with them!

Spielberg not only directs his children actors like very few directors can (getting some truly astonishing performances from both Henry Thomas and the precocious Drew Barrymore), but he also uses all the tricks in the book to make us feel even closer to them.  And so he decides to shoot three quarter of the film by keeping the camera at ET’s level (which is also the children’s height) thus never showing us a grown-up person right till the final act, when ET’s (apparent) death forces Elliott to grow up.  The mother is the only one “allowed” inside this children’s world and consequently she’s the only one whose face we are allowed to see right from the start. Everybody else, just like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon is filmed from below the waist. And yet the way this device is carried on is never showy, never intrusive, never feels forced on us, nor it’s comic in any way. In fact, never for a single moment we stop wondering “Why can’t I see their faces?”. Each character has his own sound, or his own trademark: a sleeve rolled up along the arm, some key dangling off a belt, a flashlight, a scalp. We know exactly who everybody is, even if we never see their faces, but our attention is so completely focused on the kids and ET that we just don’t even pay notice the others.

It is a true masterpiece in film-making, technically perfect, beautifully staged, designed and edited. And every single element of film-making,  from the cinematography, to the special effects, from the directing to the acting, all come together to, let’s put it blandly, manipulate our emotions so well that it’s impossible to resist. And so, 30 years later , we still fall prey of its spell and there we all are, laughing with it, as ET and Elliott get drunk, or as Gertie shouts when she sees the alien for the first time, or even as ET hides in the cupboard among the stuffed animals and pretends to be one of them to the unsuspecting mother. And then a moment later, we find ourselves crying our eyes out as ET’s conditions slowly deteriorate, or as the kids give him the last goodbye by the spaceship…

I have rarely witnessed such a waterfall of tears in a movie theatre like I did all the times I have seen this is a packed cinema. I must have seen ET more than 10 times at least in a theatre… And yet, it doesn’t matter how many times I have seen it, it still gets me every time: I still cry at Elliott screaming to his lungs “He came to me” while the inert body of the alien lays on that cold medical table as the doctors try to revive him and the tears helplessly roll down little Gertie‘s cheeks. Just looking at the picture here on the left still gives me goose-bumps. My heart still leaps up during that final chase sequence as those bicycles take off into the sunset . And was there ever a more powerful final close-up  as the on the one on Elliott as the spaceship flies back home to the soaring music of John Williams? Ahhh… I was almost forgetting the music.

The score by John Williams is perfectly in tuned with Spielberg’s visuals and it hits all the right notes to make us feel completely helpless at their complete mercy. And there we are, going through every single emotion in the book: excitement, fear, horror, desperation, happiness. Just like in Star Wars it’s hard to imagine how this film could have been so successful without John Williams‘s contribution. Just think about the first 10 minutes of the film, which do not have a single line of dialogue but just rely uniquely on the music. It would be inconceivable for any family blockbuster today (Only Pixar’s Wall-E, which owes a great debt to ET, attempted it).

It is a film made to be experienced together with your kids, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your loved ones, your friends. It is a film that must experienced, however cheesy this may sound (I’m ready to take the hit!), with your heart more than your brain. Leave your cynicism outside the door and try to learn again how to be a kid.. and if you really can’t, well I’m sorry about you, but then at least just marvel at the film-making skills on display here.

Spielberg has never been so perfect.

10/10

Check out other related reviews: Super 8, Raiders of the Lost ArkWar Horse  and the Adventures of Tintin

ET The Extra Terrerstrial is out on the 12 November on AMAZON UK

Raiders of the Lost Ark – 30th anniversary Review

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Harrison FordKaren AllenPaul Freeman

Call me childish, call me narrow-minded, call me a “blockbuster-junkie”, call whatever-you-want, but to me this is the perfect film!

Such a bold statement might require some explanation (which hopefully I will be able to give in this post) and certainly begs the question: what makes a film perfect? And, is this really one?

The answer to the second question is a simple and resounding YES.

I believe a perfect film is one that can be watched over and over again: a film that you never grow tired of and that whenever is on TV and you stumble across it, you end up watching. A perfect film is one of those where you struggle to pick up one favorite scene, because they’re all so good. A perfect film is one of those you really wouldn’t change anything about it and where all its elements (story, direction, acting, music, cinematography, editing and so on) come together in a such a way that it’s virtually impossible to choose one over the other.

Raiders of the lost Ark is 30 years old this month, but still shines as if it were made yesterday… except that it wasn’t because, as we all know “they don’t make them like this anymore“.

I still remember going to the movie theatre when it first got released (Yes, I’m giving away my age: clearly I’m not a teenager!) and being absolutely blown away by it. At the time there was nothing like it  (and arguably, that’s probably still true today).

Ever since then people have been trying to  imitate its winning formula, and, needless to say, most of them failed miserably. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about (and to prove my point), just think of Lara Croft, Prince of Persia, National treasure, The Mummy Trilogy and even those films inspired by the Dan Brown‘s books: well, those are the most successful ones… Enough said. I won’t even go into the list of endless B-movies.

I find quite hard to write about “Raiders”, mainly because I’ve seen it so many times and I know so much about it, that I almost feel compelled to write every single details filling up pages and pages… But don’t worry, I won’t.

Right from the word “go”, from when the summit of the Paramount logo dissolves into a Peruvian mountain (a Visual device which will become the trademark of the entire series), you know you’re in for something which is not only original but clever and handsomely made.

What follows that logo is probably one of the best first sequences of any action movies ever made. The mysterious forest, the haunting music, the bloody  statue, the group of explorers, the old map, the hidden cave, the pulsating tension, the crawling spiders, the giant web, the deadly traps, the decomposed body, the big scares, the golden idol, the sliding  door, the traitor, the whip,  the rolling boulder, the French baddie, the wild Hovitos, the arrows, the chase across the fields, the swinging vine, John Williams‘s “raiders theme”, the snake on the plane, the jokes breaking the tension: and all this is just within the first 10 minutes!!! It is such an incredible edge-of-your-seat beginning that after that the film can afford to launch into a very long scene with some massive exposition

And I haven’t even mentioned the hero himself, Indiana Jones.

Harrison Ford deserves a lot of credits for the success of this film. Who knows what would have happened if Tom Selleck had played the role: he was the first choice, after all (I will be eternally grateful to Magnum PI).

Harrison Ford manages to make Indiana Jones strong and frail at the same time, funny and sad, invincible and weak. Indy is a hero but he gets hurt, tired, dirty and sweaty. It doesn’t matter how far-fetched and over-the-top the action might be, Ford makes it feel real.

Spielberg directs it all with clockwork perfection but he’s also able to improvise on the spot and use it all to his advantage (most famously, the now-classic scene where Indy shoots the sword-man, which as we all know by now, was pretty much improvised on the spot). He orchestrates it all with a mastery that’s never showy and always serving the story and the action as he uses all the tricks in the film-maker book: long lens shots during a chase sequence, a tracking shot across the desert to show the scale of the landscape, a single one-take shot during a drinking competition.

He also knows exactly how to pitch the film: helped by a carefully crafted script, all the improbabilities are always levelled by humour, the action is always counter-balanced by actual dramatic scenes, the magical sense of wonder is always routed to reality and however cartoony some of the characters might be, they’re always incredibly detailed.

Paul Freeman‘s Belloq is not just a baddie. There’s so much more to him: the care and attention he has for Marion, and whole untold back-story and a passion for archeology he shares with Indy are enough to give him more depth and somehow make him more scary. He also gets one of the best lines in the film: “we are only passing though history, this… this IS history”

What started off as a tribute to those Action Saturday Matinee that Spielberg and Lucas loved so much, here becomes a rollercoaster of sheer invention, cracking action and incredible fun. So many scenes are now become classic iconic moments in movie history, whether it’s to do with snakes in  “well of Souls”, or ghost-like creatures during the opening of the ark, running though the streets of Cairo, or fighting with a bald guy by a plane out of control, in a secret chamber underground, or in a massive warehouse with thousands and thousands crates (incidentally, one of the best “last shots” of any movie!!).

This is so much more than just pure escapism: this is a manual of “storytelling with pictures”.

10/10 

Here’s there’s a great fan-made running-commentary of the film. A real work of genius and love for the film made with great care and attention. Well done Jamie!

Raiding The Lost Ark: A Filmumentary By Jamie Benning on Vimeo.

Stand By Me – 25th Anniversary Blu-ray – Review

Stand By Me (1986) 

Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring Wil WheatonRiver PhoenixCorey FeldmanJerry O’ConnellKiefer SutherlandRichard Dreyfuss.

25th years after its released a new brand remastered version with a great PiP commentary comes out on Blu-Ray tomorrow.

I find incredibly difficult to review “Stand By Me” without being completely biased and detached, the way a real film critic should be. But then again, I am not a real film critic, I’m just a film lover (and a geek, of course!) and most of the time my response to a film is an emotional one: if it makes me laugh or cry or think then it means that it worked on me; but if it makes me laugh and cry and think, then there is something more to it too!

Basically let me just tell you upfront: I adore this film!

The word classic gets over-used these days. Any anniversary is an excuse to re-release any piece of junk that’s more than 20 years old. Most of those films carry that cheesy sense of nostalgia for the 80s, and that’s sometimes enough for them to appropriate a cult status. But when you look at them closely, you’ll find that they have aged quite badly, either technically (terrible matte paintings, visual effects or synthesized music) or stylistically (Their look, the clothes and the hairstyles people are wearing and the corny dialogue nobody seemed to mind so much at the time).

However “Stand by me” has the advantage of being a period piece (It is set in 1959) and its simple, subtle and honest depiction of the 60s not only hides away the cheesiness of the 80s but also adds a sense of timelessness. The film is 25 years old, but it could just as well be 35 or 45 … and yet it still relates all of us as if it was made yesterday…

I loved it at the time, for its sheer sense of fun, adventure and mischief and I love it today for its poignant look at the way we were…

It’s the ultimate coming of age story, set in the hazy, warm, sunny and dreamy landscape of Oregon, as 4 friends set out on a journey along the railway tracks, looking for the body of a missing boy.

The film is adapted by a short novel by Stephen King, from the book “Four Seasons” (The Shawshank Redemption was also adapted from the same book) and like all the best tales from King, finds its strength in the way the characters are fleshed out: rarely have teenagers so very well depicted like in “Stand by Me”. The contrast between the way they try to act as adults in front of each other, by smoking or swearing (“Go get the food, you morphodite”) and the way they reveal their real age by talking about the most childish and mundane things and yet making them sound profound and meaningful (MightyMouse is a cartoon. Superman’s a real guy!).

Behind all that, there’s a pure, sincere and real sense of friendship that permeates the whole film.

That line at the end on that computer screen “I never had friends like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” resonates in all of us and it’s one of the most poignant and truthful line I can remember in any film.

The interaction between the four young actors is the real power of “Stand By Me”: never for a moment you think they might be acting. Will Wheaton’s take as the sensitive Gordie is impeccable. The way he pauses before delivering his lines, how he smiles and looks at his best friends, how he proudly tells them the story of Lard-Ass, how he breaks down into tears at the sudden realization that his parents might hate him and finally how coldly threatens Kiefer Sutherland‘s terrifying bully, without even flinching (suck my fat one, you cheap die store hood!).

Both Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell are also spot on in their roles, bringing not only that amount of comic relief needed but also that sense of playfulness that kids at that age have (I don’t shut up I grow up, and when I look at you I throw up!)

But ultimately it’s River Phoenix that steals the show. The poignancy and sincerity he brings to the role of Chris Chambers is even more enhanced today by the ending of the film and as we see him fading away in the distance and we’re just left with a sour taste of what an incredible actor he could have become.

Beautifully photographed, as seen from the dreamy eyes of an adult (in this case Richard Dreyfuss) who’s obviously very fond of those memories, the film is also accompanied by the most wonderful soundtrack, a mixture of hits from the time, perfectly integrated into the film (like the moment the kids break into signing “lollipop“) and the actual score made up with a subtle slowed down version of the “Stand By Me” itself by Ben E.King

This film is a real little gem , a small masterpiece, dare_I-say, that works because of its charming and honest simplicity. You could easily argue against some of the clichés and the non-very-subtle depiction of Gordie’s family and the ever-too-perfect-dead-older-brother or obvious lines like “The town seemed different: smaller“, but it would be like arguing that Snow-White is a two-dimensional character, or that Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the cuckoos’ Nest” is an unbelievable bitch: basically it would be pointless.

Reiner’s  film is a true undeniable classic, a nostalgic look at the way we were, in a time of innocence when friendship really meant something and when the most important question was “if Mickey’s a mouse, Donald’s a duck, Pluto’s a dog. What’s Goofy?

9.5/10

If you Agree, or disagree, do let me know and leave me a message.

If you enjoy this review, do leave a message (… Actually I guess you should leave one even if you didn’t…)

The Silence Of The Lambs – 20th Anniversary

The Silence Of The Lamb (1991)

(20th Anniversary Review)

Dir: Jonathan Demme With: Jodie FosterAnthony HopkinsScott Glenn

Yes, it has been exactly 20 years since Antony Hopkins appeared for the first time as Dr Hannibal Lecter (the film premiered on the January the 30th in New York and on the 1st of February in LA. Interestingly the film was released to the general public on Valentine’s day: not your typical date movie, is it?).

Back in 1991 it defied expectations by winning the top 5 Oscars (a year after its release!!), best film, director, screenplay, leading actor and actress: it is only the third film in movie history  (after it happened one night and One flew over the cuckoos’nest.)… and the first horror/thriller to win for best film. As it happened a year after Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves, it was probably a sign that Hollywood was getting ready to accept the dark side of movies.

20 years later, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a preposterous film, camp as hell,  absurdly over the top in its premise and its execution and yet it holds a place in American Movie History as a modern classic.

With Hannibal (incidentally a character that appears for only 16 minutes in the film) Hopkins became a star (yes, he was good before this, but few really knew him) and created an icon, which lived on throughout (and despite) its three sequels: Hannibal, Red Dragon (in fact this is both a prequel and a remake of Micheal Mann’s Manhunter) and the very forgettable Hannibal Rising (another prequel, Hopkins-free).

All of a sudden, we all started to love the bad guy, or at least we loved hating him: we loved the fact that he ate the despicable Dr Chilton at the end (“I have an old friend for dinner”, is probably one of the classic final lines of any film, up there with “Nobody’s perfect” in Some Like It Hot), we loved those over the top lines, those chilling looks, his refined taste, his Southern English accent… And we just want him to get away, despite the fact that we know he’s bad.

This is certainly nothing new, Hitchcock had done it  30 years earlier in Psycho, but arguably this is the film that started off the whole trend of “serial killers” with whom we identify, the whole puzzle solving murder mysteries and the mixture of dark horror and funny one liners. Surely without Silence of the lambs and its Hannibal the Cannibal character, there would have been no Se7en by David Fincher, possibly no Dexter on TV and probably not even Jigsaw from the Saw franchise…  And God knows how many others.

However what keeps this film anchored to the ground, despite the over-the-top (but obviously very effective) performance by Anthony Hopkins, is a combination of a very controlled and calculated direction by Jonathan Demmi and the presence of Jodie Forster, who somehow counterbalances her camp on-screen partner.

Jonathan Demmi, uses every little (subtle and non-subltle) trick in the book to suck in his viewers and bring them as close possible to the screen. He films the most intimate dialogue sequences between Hannibal and Clarice in extreme close ups, and has them delivering their lines straight to camera, as if they were confessing their inner secrets directly to us. As he does so, he drops the level of any other sound away from the central conversation, he kills the music and as as he slowly zooms in closer and closer into their faces, he very subtly pushes the bars of the prison cells that separate them away from each other until they actually disappear from the final frame, thus bringing the two characters even closer to each other.

It’s very effective and it works wonderfully!

He even uses the powerful tricks of editing in order to deceive us to believe one thing instead of another. That famous sequence towards the end of the film, where we are lead to believe that the police is about to break into Buffalo Bill’s house and save the day, only to reveal that in fact they’re all actually heading to the wrong place. Nowadays these types of devices have been copied over and over again in countless movies and TV CSI-like shows (and even the great 24) but never worked as well as they did here: it is an incredibly manipulative but just as accomplished moment.

Today so many films about “serial killers”, puzzle solving, cat & mouse chases and dark psychological horrors, they all seem to owe a debt to “The Silence of the Lambs”. Watching it today, we find so many clichés of the genre, but in fact, most of them, if not all of them, were absolutely new at the time.

I am not quite sure it deserved to all all those Oscars, but it certainly deserves its cult status today, 20 years later, for  paving the way to a new genre of thrillers, braner and more stylish horrors.

8.5/10

Check out the review of another modern Classic:

Back to the Future (1985)

Barney’s Version – Review

Barney’s Version 

Directed by Richard J. Lewis. Starring Paul GiamattiMacha GrenonPaul GrossDustin HoffmanMinnie Driver.

This is a very unusual film which took me completely by surprise. About 1 hour into it I was actually ready to hate it. Then something must have happened about half way through because slowly (maybe too slowly) what was up until that point just an average comedy, turned into something quite different: a touching story, with a very powerful ending which I am sure will stay with me for quite a while.

Paul Giamatti is the real strength of “Barney’s Version”, a film which otherwise would have become a fairly forgettable ride. He somehow manages to turn the part of the obnoxious, hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, foul-mouthed, hypocrite and quite repellent television producer, Barney Panofsky, into a moving character right at the end, just when you’re ready to dismiss him. This is certainly one of the best performances of Giamatti’s career (and that says a lot, since he’s always been very good).

Having said this, 132 minutes spent in the company of someone like Barney who is so focused on himself, so smug would stretch anyone’s patience.

His actual character is virtually impossible to comprehend and in the end, despite being present for pretty much every single scene in the film,  he does remain a mystery (and i don’t mean it as a compliment). This is certainly not Giamatti’s fault but a combination of the script (adapted from a novel by the Canadian Mordecai Richler) and a bland direction (unsurprisingly Richard J. Lewis comes from TV from things like CSI, makes no attempt to bring any style or pace to the film).

The main problem, length aside, is that you never quite believe why so many attractive women could fall in love for the sweaty, drunken Barney. And yet, he does get married 3 times and has constant flings everywhere else too. At some point I even wondered whether Giamatti was really the best choice for this story (though he is so good that he almost gets away with it).

The whole first part of the film is probably the weakest. It is fairly episodic and tries too hard to be a comedy without being funny enough. There are too many subplots which feel too random and disjointed but also there are way too many supporting characters, most whom might have played better in the novel, but here they all feel too much like caricatures (the father in law, Minnie Driver and Dustin Hoffman among many), as the film barely scratches their surface.

Then, about 1 hour into the film, something quite big happens (I won’t tell you what it is, don’t worry) and from there onwards the film finally seemed to find its way and became more focused.

Rosamunda Pike enters the film  and the relationship between her and Giamatti takes the centre stage. I have  never been really crazy about Rosamunda Pyke, but in this film she’s really good and she definitely plays one of the her best part.

Slowly the film settles into what it really should have been from the beginning, a slightly more poignant and focused film about a guy feeling the weight of the guilt and regrets for the life he’s spent. The last act is heart-wrenching and probably the most original part of the film. Some people may find it a bit too heavy handled, especially since our emotional investment in the main character has been somewhat limited by his awful persona.

It really worked on me but I can see how somebody could argue it’s rather manipulative.

On a separate note, there some in-jokes cameo appearances by some of Canada’s most notable directors, for diehard movie geeks out there: these are mainly people who have worked for producer Robert Lantos (producer of Eastern Promises). Even David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan also turn up as directors of Barney’s TV show.

6.5/10

Alice in Wonderland – Review

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010) 

Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny DeppMia WasikowskaHelena Bonham Carter

On paper this movie is something which had all the potential to be the movie of the year: Tim Burton’s visionary genius re-imagining one of the most fantastic and imaginative stories ever.  Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Mia Wasikowska (from the wonderful “In Treatment”) as Alice herself. Special Effects extravaganza in 3D. And a never-ending list of great actors and  actresses lending their voices to all those loved characters from our childhood. I would have said “count me in!” anytime!!! And yet, this ended up to be possibly the biggest turkey of the year!

It’s not really an awful film, but knowing what this could have been like, it just leaves you really disappointed.

How could it have happened?

In a way it reminded me of Steven’s Spielberg’s Hook, one the (few) big missteps of his career. In that movie too Spielberg had made the terrible mistake of messing with a classic story: for example we had a grown up Peter Pan going back to Neverland. Here Alice has grown up too and forgot everything about Wonderland which is now a run down place with a Gothic feel, typical of any Tim Burton’s movie. Well, that would probably be all right, except that Burton, by updating the world really managed to take the wonder out of “Wonderland”.

Tim Burton’s film is essentially a sequel/re-imagining of the Lewis Carroll without all the joyful surprises, the sense of discovery and  fun of that book and more crucially, without a single good original idea! None of the liberties the makers took seems to work culminating with fight scene with a dragon at the end  of the end which seems to belong to a different film altogether. And (big spoiler here… watch out) what’s point of all that going to China at the end? What a mess!

There was another Disney’s movie back in the 80s called Return to Oz, which made the same mistake and used the same device of having Dorothy going back to Oz only to find it all changed and half-destroyed and now look almost like a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where everything seem to be covered in ash. However in that film the story and the characters were so compelling that somehow they got a way with it, in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland all the characters are so annoying and only just half-sketched that it’s hard to care about any of them. In fact it seems like their accents, make up  and CGI enhancements have replaced their personalities.

Michael Sheen‘s White Rabbit appears a couple of times and is probably the most confusing of them all, since it relies on your knowledge of the character from the previous incarnation of the story to make any sense of it. Where is he going? Why is there at all? What’s his point? is he there to help Alice or the Queen? Stephen Fry‘s Cheshire Cat and  Alan Rickman‘s Blue Caterpillar are just as superfluous to the story. Once again, it all feels rather over-blown, over-crowded with characters.

And finally Johnny Depp who’s impersonation of the Mad Hatter is the most annoying of them all and possibly one of the actor’s worse performance of his career . Now, I really used to like Johnny Depp, but it seems that in the last few years he’s only been playing the same over-the-top character over and over again. His Mad Hatter seems an extension and a mixture of his previous “mad characters”: there’s a little bit  from Tim Burton’s previous creations, from Willy Wonka in Chocolate Factory,  to Sweeney Todd and even his previous Edward Scissorhands but there’s also lots of reminders to Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and hints from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Is Johnny Depp playing the same character over and over again? What happened to the sweet, restrained and understated performances of his early work like the beautiful What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Donnie Brasco? And most awful of them all Anne Hathaway‘s take of White Queen, who’s mannerism is just as annoying as her eyebrow. It might have been all intentional (in which case, even worse) but it was certainly a very bad choice to have her acting like that.

Helena Bonham Carter‘s impersonation of the Red Queen is one of the few redeeming factor in the whole film and the scenes with her are probably the highlights in an otherwise flat and misjudged series of sequences. Though even her bizarre creation becomes a bit tedious after a while.

Even the special effects (which by themselves are top class) are so diluted in the poor story that somehow failed to strike a chord and surprise us. Not to mention the use of the 3D which is probably one of the poorest use of it I’ve seen this year (together with “Clash of the Titans”). I guess it has to do with the fact that the movie was actually filmed on 2D and then retrofitted (I am not quite sure whether this is the right term for it) afterwards. This is a technique that not only doesn’t work but also brings a bad reputation to 3D itself (I keep on hearing a lot of people complaining about how bad 3D is, but they’ve only seen Clash of the Titans of Alice in Wonderland,  and they believe that’s what 3D really is).

Just a quick word about the music score: yes, it could have been good, if only they had work out where to use it, as opposed to ending up having music throughout the whole film, thus diminishing the effect that music should have. Overblown is once again the word that comes to mind.

I wonder what this film could have been like if maybe Tim Burton had made it, without Disney behind his shoulders. But as it is, on the whole, this mish-mash of Disney and Burton doesn’t really hold together and it proves once again that Tim Burton is the “director-that-could-be-great-but-rarely-really-is”.

5.5/10

OTHER RELATED REVIEWS (or, you’d better watch something else, instead of this)

Toy Story 3

Tron: Legacy

Back to the Future

 

Shutter Island – BluRay Review

SHUTTER ISLAND – (6.5/10)

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprioMark RuffaloBen KingsleyMax von Sydow

I am assuming that if you are reading this, you’ve probably already seen the film. If you haven’t and you don’t want to know how it all ends, please stop now as this review will be full of SPOILERS.

The film has been around for almost a year now and it’s even out on DVD and Bluray but it recently popped up again on the pages of Variety, Screen International and The Hollywood Reporter in a big campaign “for your consideration” as Paramount is trying to push it for the forthcoming awards season.

The Cinematography

Well, for a start the film is just too long (it’s at least 25 minutes too long, if not more) and it’s just too pleased with its mood and its look. In a way it’s just too self-indulgent.

There are just too many characters, most of whom have to go through long tortuous scenes with dialogue full of exposition (including the “shock” ending which is played out with Ben Kingsley basically having to explain the whole film to Di Caprio).

And it’s a shame because the whole thing looks beautiful! Scorsese obviously knows his cinema history and pays homage to so many classics of film noir and from the 50s, from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to The Snake Pit, to Hitchcock’s Spellbound and even Psycho at one point.

This is as dark as it gets in terms of mood, colours, and the whole atmosphere of the film itself. It’s all enhanced by the strangest music, assembled from previously recorded material and assembled for the film by Robbie Robertson (most of which sounds just like a horn sound from a boat).

And yet the film’s main problem is that the whole thing is played out like a big mystery heading towards the final “shocking revelation” and yet the audience is always miles ahead of the main character played (impeccably, I should say) by Leonardo DiCaprio. Let’s face it, you know pretty much from the very start that he is mad.

The constant dreams and flashbacks that Di Caprio has, the weird encounters with some of the characters in the film (particularly Patricia Clarkson) are pretty much telegraphing the fact that Di Caprio is seriously disturbed, so much so that when a piece of paper turns up saying that there’s another patient in the island we all know that it’s him! (Especially if we have seen films like Angel’s Heart, where a very similar trick is played).

The film tries to mess things up adding a series of red herring to divert the attention of the audience, but in fact, all they seem to do is to make the film a bit too slow and heavy.

When the ending finally comes, it all feels like A) something which we half knew already and B) a bit of a cheap trick. Also, let’s face it, a film that spends the last 20 minutes explaining to you everything you’ve been watching up until that moment in a long dialogue scene has something seriously wrong going for it.

And it’s a real shame because the story itself is actually rather good, including that very last line in the film where you get the feeling that Di Caprio is faking his madness in order to get lobotomized and not have to live with the pain of his guilt and sorrow anymore. It’s a beautifully handled and very sublte scene.

In fact, I must confess I probably enjoyed Shutter Island more on a second viewing on the bluray, where I wasn’t so confused by all the names and characters and I knew what to focus on and how I should have interpreted all those long dialogue scenes, which on a first viewing don’t make a lot of sense.

Don’t take me wrong, I don’t mind being confused in films, but as long as me being confused is actually the intent of the film-makers. If I start wondering “who was that guy again?” then the film has failed to tell me a clear story.

If I were to judge this movie on the basis of its visual style and its atmosphere I would probably give it a 9/10, the acting is superb (Di Caprio is always good, that’s now not even debatable), so is Mark Ruffalo, and it’s nice to see Ben Kingsley playing against expectations, but I found the movie is just let down by a lack of editorial judgement which should have made it a lot tighter.

On a technical note, the transfer on the Bluray is perfect, and so is the audio, as you would expect from a movie of this calibre. However the extras were pretty thin.

6.5/10 (though I really want to give it more)

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